The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected working women worldwide as they struggle to meet the needs of their families and employers—and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of promoting gender equity in workplaces across the globe.
“As early as last May, we began to hear globally that the pandemic was having an outsized impact on certain historically marginalized groups, like women and people of color,” said Emily M. Dickens, chief of staff, head of government affairs, and corporate secretary for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). She was speaking during SHRM’s Employment Law & Compliance virtual conference on April 7.
Thirty-one percent of female workers surveyed in the U.S. said they personally know a woman who voluntarily left the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic because of caregiving responsibilities, according to SHRM research. Additionally, 27 percent of female workers with caregiving responsibilities reported that their professional development was negatively affected by the pandemic, whereas 10 percent of men reported the same.
SHRM research also found that 27 percent of workers in the U.S. think workplace equity is the most important issue they face at work. “Today, a year after the world we know changed due to the pandemic, this issue is even more important,” Dickens said.
She encouraged people to find the silver lining. “The post-COVID workplace is different, and employers, led by HR, can shape it. This is our opportunity to make work better for women, for families, for society, for all.”
Embracing the Opportunity
“We’re in a different moment in our country and our companies,” Dickens said. “The triple crises of last year, coupled with continued competition to retain and acquire talent, provides an amazing opportunity to make radical change in our workplaces.”
The B20—a global task force of business leaders—established a Special Initiative on Women’s Empowerment in response to the pandemic’s impact on women and aims to “generate robust policy recommendations through a transparent, collaborative and inclusive process with relevant stakeholders,” according to the initiative’s webpage.
Dickens represents SHRM as a member of the initiative. She identified the following policies that organizational leaders should consider implementing:
- Paid leave. Paid-leave policies should reflect the demands of the 21st-century workforce while acknowledging the unique needs of individual businesses. Policies should build on existing voluntary leave systems and encourage more employers to offer paid leave.
- Workplace flexibility. In addition to remote work, flexible workplace policies might include flextime, job sharing, and open leave. Organizations that have adopted modern workplace flexibility policies are better positioned to keep businesses operating during disruptions like a pandemic.
- Inclusion and pay equity. Employers that have built a reputation for equity, inclusion, and positive cultures can attract top talent globally and serve as role models for other employers. People Managers should be encouraged to perform regular pay audits, root out inequities and stay informed about competitive compensation in their industries.
Creating an Inclusive Workplace
Dickens noted that each woman has her own unique circumstances. Women with children have a set of circumstances that were complicated by the pandemic, but leaders should remember that not all women are mothers, caregivers, or spouses.
“Women are not monolithic,” she said. “If you address all gender issues with the same lens, you are defeating the point of creating an inclusive workplace.”
Organizational leaders and People Managers must make the extra effort to meet the individual needs of their employees. “A culture focused on the individual, as well as historically marginalized groups, is a culture to strive for.”
As a baseline, employers need to communicate with their workforce, show compassion and connect with their employees, especially during uncertain times.
Dickens noted that many recommendations to improve the workplace experience for women are relevant to all workers. “As we embrace this next normal, we’ll need the best of the best to be part of this workplace revival, and that includes underrepresented talent pools, like women.” Additionally, employers can benefit from hiring women and men with criminal backgrounds, workers with disabilities, veterans, and older workers.
She urged leaders to keep paying attention to the issues that impact their culture and what employees are experiencing in times of stress. “Strong and open workplace cultures are even more important when times are tough.”
SHRM Chief Human Resources Officer Sean Sullivan, SHRM-SCP, observed that the past year has been difficult for everyone. “We’ve all had to adjust and adapt to our new normal,” he said. “But where there is a crisis, there is also an opportunity, and the pandemic crisis has forced us to rethink the way we work.”